Ukrainian pianist Stanislav Khristenko performed Russian and American composers for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Young Artist Program on Sunday. Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky were right up his sleeve, leaving little doubt of this artist’s prodigiousness and power when applied to the Russian masters. Almost the same could be said of Khristenko’s American coupling of Barber and Bloch but with several serious reservations mostly about staying power.
In 2013 alone, Khristenko won First Prize at the Cleveland International Piano Competition, the Maria Canals International Music Competition, and was named Fourth Laureate at the Queen Elisabeth Competition. He has appeared as a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra, Phoenix and Richmond Symphonies, National Orchestra of Belgium, Bilbao and Tenerife Symphony Orchestra, Liege Royal Philharmonic, Hong Kong Chamber Orchestra, and Takamatsu Symphony Orchestra. His solo recitals include Weill and Zankel Halls at Carnegie Hall, Schubert-Saal at Vienna Koncerthaus, and Palais de Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
Sunday’s hour-and-a-half recital opened with Moments musicaux Op. 16 (1896) of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Khristenko taking the audience by storm with his thundering technique. Torrents of chromaticism in the Allegretto surely impressed.
It was the center of these seven pieces that showed Khristenko’s deep connection, if not reverence, for a pianism favoring sound sculpturing. In this Andante cantabile, volleys of dissonant notes suspended over into concords, Bach-like, gathering a concentrated momentum that was magnetic to the ear.
The ending to the Presto sent a final electrical shock up the spine causing many in the audience to erupt with bravos. However, the outpouring might have also been due to some confusion on the part of listeners in Calderwood Hall, some saying they were not exactly sure where they were in the seven-movement work. This may have had to do with Khristenko moving ever so effortlessly from one Moment to the next. These are his pieces—he exudes Rachmaninoff!
Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor, Op. 26 (1949) hit the heights of tragedy under this young Russian pianist’s hands straight off in the opening movement, Allegro energico. Both the first motive of semi-tones, but especially the second motive that might be characterized as yearning, came with handsome brute force, Khristenko making gripping tragedy throughout.
An excellent tempo taken by the young Ukrainian allowed a spacious springboard for the ensuing Allegro vivace e leggero. Crystal clear, it was in just contrast to the previous movement.
Khristenko, though, could not actualize needed let up for the Adagio mesto. The intense dynamic level became taxing. And again, power, not staying power, would cripple the Fuga: Allegro con spirit. One might ask if the nine-foot Steinway grand is at its best when so much muscle is applied.
Ernest Bloch’s Poems of the Sea (1922) were longed-for fare. If not at the top of one’s preferences, it certainly was worth the while to encounter this rarely performed piano triptych. My huge applause is intended to express my excitement over this inclusion on the program.
But Bloch did not really feel any different from the Rachmaninoff and Barber. The same type of piano-sculpting, if you will, was always apparent, most conspicuously in the slow, middle piece, “Chanty.” The folkish melody rang out too strongly at certain points. Khristenko’s phrasing again indulged in the obvious rather than the subtle, punching a note here and retreating there. “Waves” and “At Sea,” wanting more sea esprit, instead morphed into brilliant artistry.
Back to Khristenko’s home—I believe all of us were right there with him—he came to the recital finisher, Igor Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Petrouchka. Khristenko made this demanding piano version sparkle, flirt with danger, and dance with some of the most electrically charged Stravinskyian rhythmic uprisings and thematic potions ever.
For an encore, Khristenko gave George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love;” his languorous touch elicited a very theatrical sigh from one of the listeners.